A Novel Exploring the Challenges and
Triumphs of Running an Animal Shelter
268 pages, paperback ($17.99) or e-book ($7.99.)
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Probably close to 100% of the ANIMALS 24-7 readership have at some point either worked or volunteered in an animal shelter. Thus probably close to 100% will either intensely identify with the characters in The Ripple Effect, by longtime shelter worker and consultant Marcy Eckhardt, or at least recognize them.
Probably most who start to read The Ripple Effect will read it cover-to-cover in just a couple of sittings, as I did, feeling that The Ripple Effect is by, for, and about us, the people who know animal sheltering from the inside out, as opposed to them, who interact with shelters in various ways and often vocally criticize shelter procedures, but have little understanding of why things are done as they are.
The Ripple Effect is about the omni-present tension between shelter staff and the public, heightened by intensifying pressure from activists and donors to go “no-kill,” whether or not the animal intake volume has been reduced enough by sterilization, adoption, fostering, and other programs to make “no-kill” a realistic option.
Should author Eckhardt be lucky enough to achieve significant crossover readership among the public, and among activists who lack shelter experience, or––even better––should The Ripple Effect become a hit film it could do a great deal to reduce the conflict over “kill vs. no-kill,” by clarifying that even no-kill shelters often have to euthanize animals for reasons of health or dangerous behavior (unless they also practice selective admission), that selective admission is not a realistic option in communities which do not have open admission shelters, and that the overwhelming majority of shelter workers in today’s context do everything reasonably possible to avoid killing animals.
“Why we must euthanize”
We are so far now beyond the era when the 1979 Phyllis Wright essay “Why we must euthanize” hung prominently on the wall of almost every shelter, and the more ponderous essay about the necessity of shelter killing authored in the 1950s by animal gas chamber inventor Raymond Naramore, that Eckhardt makes only transient mention of the attitudes and conditions of those days.
Just entering her 20th year in animal sheltering, when she wrote The Ripple Effect, Eckhardt became involved two years after Wright died, one year before the first No-Kill Conference was held in Phoenix, Arizona, not far from the setting of The Ripple Effect near the Four Corners reservation area, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet.
The culture of animal sheltering in those days, focused on euthanasia rooms, has shifted to the present focus on adoption facilities and boosting save rates, sometimes regardless of whether particular animals can or should be “saved.”
The nature of shelter work
But, though shelter culture has changed, the nature of shelter work still requires killing some animals, and killing fewer animals has not always lessened the stress on the people who do it. The elevated status that skilled euthanasia technicians had within shelter culture during the Phyllis Wright era helped to offset the aversion and antipathy that outsiders often exhibited, and still exhibit, toward people who kill impounded or surrendered dogs and cats.
The high volume of killing done then, after minimal holding periods, helped euthanasia technicians to mechanize or ritualize the procedure, distancing themselves from it. Euthanasia technicians today, as at the fictional shelter Eckhardt writes about, often have become personally acquainted with the dogs and cats they kill, during holding intervals of weeks or months.
Among The Ripple Effect central characters are a shelter director who, like most, has learned her job on the job, in the manner of apprenticeship, and is bewildered by “no kill” activism; a senior shelter technician who is burned out by euthanasia stress; an enthusiastic trainee who is gradually learning and adjusting to shelter work; an executive director who came up through the ranks, but is now focused on the politics of keeping the shelter funded and functioning to the point of sometimes unintentionally overlooking the needs of her staff; and a senior volunteer turned board member who aspires to oust and succeed the executive director, as part of making a transition to “no kill” that she knows about mainly from having attended a couple of conferences and reading blogs.
The senior volunteer might be seen as the villain of The Ripple Effect, and is viewed as such by the narrative persona, the shelter director; but she is clearly dedicated, motivated, able to recruit new volunteer help, sometimes offers new ideas of possible value, and while her habit of following staff all over the shelter jotting down critical notes is problematic, irritated staff miss many opportunities to explain what they are doing before the criticisms become an explosion.
Contradictions true to life
Among the most true-to-life aspects of The Ripple Effect are the many philosophical and practical contradictions evident in the shelter procedures and activist attitudes. No character is entirely consistent, from the shelter director and other staff focused on saving animals who nonetheless casually eat meat, to the animal hoarder who believes himself to be a rescuer, to the scheming no-kill volunteer and board member whose first two criticisms of shelter practice both come straight out of the Phyllis Wright credo: that advertising and discounting particular animals to promote adoptions somehow devalues the animals.
Paradoxically, both techniques were introduced by Mike Arms, who was then shelter director for the North Shore Animal League, no-kill since 1969. Arms since 2000 has been president of the no-kill Helen Woodward Animal Center.
Skulls & bones
Probably the most bizarre contradiction, but a contradiction that even Eckhardt does not seem to recognize, even though she has blogged about it, is that the executive director seeks to reduce euthanasia stress by having her staff cremate animals instead of disposing of their remains at the county landfill. This requires the staff to manually pulverize the remnants of skulls and large bones, a grim and occupationally dangerous reminder of the living animals.
Few if any psychological counselors who specialize in treating euthanasia stress would recommend this change of procedures. The only alternative to manual pulverization that Eckhardt appears to be aware of is to use a coffee grinder, which would be harshly noisy and impractical for frequent use.
However, making a quiet bone-crushing, dust-evacuating machine similar to those used at crematoriums for humans would be a relatively simple and inexpensive chore for a mechanically inclined volunteer who knows his way around a junkyard.
The Ripple Effect is not flawless literature. Though the writing flows well, there are passages, including improbably long bursts of dialog, which are actually short expository essays about various aspects of animal sheltering, paralleling blog postings from Eckhardt’s web site.
But Eckhardt can be praised for surmounting the difficulty of writing a gripping novel that includes not even the hint of a romantic theme involving any of her mostly young female characters, whose emotional focus is their work to the near exclusion of any personal life.
Rescued dog attack
Barely mentioning pit bulls in The Ripple Effect, Eckhardt somewhat sidesteps aspects of her climactic crisis, involving a German shepherd whom the shelter director recommends should be killed due to dangerous behavior, who is instead transferred to a no-kill shelter through board intervention, is fostered out, also contrary to the shelter director’s warnings, and severely mauls a child.
Such incidents involving German shepherds do occasionally occur. But the dogs rehomed from shelters who go on to injure people are about 10 times more likely to be pit bulls than dogs of all other breeds combined, according to the ANIMALS 24-7 log of attacks by shelter dogs. Breed-specific pro-pit bull activism heightens the conflicts that Eckhardt aspires to illuminate.
The Ripple Effect concludes with a climatic scene in which impassioned speeches by the shelter director and the executive director, who has just resigned, bring the board and the community to their senses. That rarely happens in the real world.